On Thursday morning, as the Trump administration frantically tried to save its deeply unpopular Affordable Care Act replacement bill, White House social media director Dan Scavino Jr. tweeted out a message to Trump’s dwindling pool of supporters urging them to call their congressperson in support of the American Health Care Act.
But as some people were quick to note, directly lobbying Congress in support of (or opposition to) a bill using federal dollars—including White House staff who earn federal salaries—is strictly forbidden under 18 U.S.C. § 1913.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed the accusation during his daily press briefing Thursday afternoon, dismissing any notion of wrongdoing by the President but stopping short of defending Scavino’s original tweet.
“It is not…the president…it doesn’t…that is not applicable to the president, no,” said Spicer, when asked if the White House was concerned about violating anti-lobbying laws.
Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, disagrees. “Based on the letter of the law, the lobying provision would apply to the White House and any White House official,” he told ThinkProgress. “Any lobbying for the health care bill violates that ban.”
Amey pointed to a 2005 case in which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review a document sent to millions of Americans by the Social Security Administration that contained language seemingly in support of a bill before Congress. In that instance, the GAO concluded there was no violation of the anti-lobbying provision.
“Under our established case law, we have required evidence of a clear appeal by the agency to the public to contact congressional members and to urge them to support the agency’s position,” wrote Anthony H. Gamboa, then the general counsel for the GAO, in a letter to Congress.
But in Thursday’s case, there was a clear appeal to the public to contact their representatives and express their support for Trump’s health care bill.
Of course, the Trump administration has shown little to no regard for federal law during their two months in office thus far. From the moment the clock struck noon on Inauguration Day, Donald Trump was in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, and has yet to take any action to extricate himself and his personal fortune from his vast business empire. The White House continues to take a Nixonian approach to federal law, arguing over and over again—falsely—that if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.
Amey noted that the White House could make an argument that the anti-lobbying law strictly applies to agencies, therefore exempting individual government officials. It’s a similar argument they have made to excuse past ethical transgressions by Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and others.
“Once again, we see the White House crossing ethics lines that should alarm the public,” said Amey. “This administration just keeps making missteps, which might have been okay in the private sector, but not when we’re talking about the integrity of the federal government.”
The rollout of the AHCA has been an unmitigated disaster for the Trump administration, with virtually no support from health policy organizations and only marginally more support from Republicans in Congress. After scheduling a vote on the bill for March 23—the seven year anniversary of the passage of the Affordable Care Act—House Republicans backtracked and delayed the vote after it became clear they wouldn’t have enough votes to pass it.